Thursday, 21 November 2013

Teaching How to Learn in 2013: Tara O'Neill

Teaching how to learn in 2013.

My 16 year old daughter wrote this on facebook today after her first NCEA English exam.

“I actually love doing tests. I enjoyed my exam, but I don't think exams are actually a good way to learn, nor do they accurately test what you know.”

I remember Secondary School -  I just did what I was told  and remembered what I needed to, and wrote what was expected in a test and I passed.  But I didn’t know much about learning.

This new generation of students are taught to think for themselves. That is what learning is like now.  Not just knowing about the motor in the car, but working out how to make it faster and better.  Not just how to sew an outfit, but how to sew one which will turn eyes. Not just the notes on a page of music, but a song which will be a number one hit . 

 When I was 16 I got a job in a diary.  I lasted 1 day.  I didn’t know how to give change and I sold a magazine for $4 when it should have been like $20. I was in big trouble.  My education did not have many practical, real life examples in it - like giving change.  
My 16 year old daughter, got a job at the local takeaway this week.  She learnt how to use the till and how to write orders down in one night and she still has a job. 

At Teachers College I have a visual picture of sitting around an oval table full of students in my third year and the lecturer saying that the staff had been discussing us and they had realised that we didn’t know how to think!  So they set about teaching us Critical Thinking Skills.  I remember the lessons.  It had a huge impact on me but, it has still taken me time to realise that learning isn’t about the knowledge itself, but about what you do with it.  

Our Math curriculum in New Zealand has two parts to it.  Firstly knowledge, things you just learn like how to count to 1000 and what number comes before 25.   Secondly, it has thestrategy part.  This is the useful part.  Strategy is when you add two numbers together start with the largest and add the smallest.  And thinking in part/whole; splitting up large numbers so you can add them easier.  Finding tidy numbers within numbers that you are better at working with.  And all of this learning happens within a context of a problem.  For example, I have to measure 250 grams of flour and I have weights that weigh 200 gm,  100 gm, 20 gm and 50 gm.  What weights will I use to measure the flour?

In our writing curriculum,  the thinking comes in lots of forms.  Which type of format would be best for what I want to write about?  How can I attract the reader to want to read this writing?  Also, if I re-read this writing and work it around, it will be easier to read and get my point across better.  What e-platform can I publish it on so my audience reads it quickly.
This generation of learners are asked for their opinion about what they are learning.  What do you think about this piece of writing?  What do you think about this idea?  Could you improve it?

Education now is full of real life learning.   This year my class made a business plan to raise money for a class learning trip to the National Aquarium in Napier.  We worked out how much we would need for our overnight trip.  We thought about what we would sell and how many of these items we would need to sell.  We raised the money and this week we go on our trip.  So much awesome learning in there.

But my favourite part of todays learning is that of learning how to learn.   My students come to class and expect me to tell them what to do.  I refuse! 
Well, I give them options of what they need to do but they have to organise themselves to get their learning completed. These ‘things to do’ are based on learning goals that they have co-constructed with me.  The students have to learn to motivate themselves, organise, fail, try again, find success in small gains, be resourceful, help each other.  It is not easy to learn how to learn. 

It is very challenging for me as a teacher to allow students to explore,  try out, and experiment with their learning.   Oh, I so want to boss them around - go and do this and go and do that.  And when they get frustrated or ‘distracted’, and don’t do anything, sometimes I want to scream at them.  And yes, sometimes I have to step in and ‘remind them about the reason’ we met together each day - to learn. 

I don’t have all the answers and I am still learning how to provide an environment where students take the lead in their learning and make decisions and choices that are good for them.  I am still finding out  what learning to learn skills to pass on to my students which will help them regulate their emotions, focus, work as a team, ask questions and be resourceful.  Probably the most important part of this process is that of reflection.  Taking time for teacher and student to stop and think “What did I do today that helped me to learn?”  “What resource or skill did I learn that was new today?”

Back to my 16 year old daughter and this new generation of learners.  I believe that  many of our young people are discerning learners and are well set up to make a positive difference in the world today, not because they copied and learnt rote but because they know how to learn and how to think.
I truly believe that ‘The best is yet to come’.

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